Beirut lesson?

The world public will hope and pray that the bomb explosion at the US Embassy in Beirut does not signal the beginning of a new round of terrorist activity in the Middle East. Few details of the bombing are known at this writing, and many questions have to be answered. But the manifestation of violence anywhere, at any time, for whatever reason, calls for the most constructive and far-sighted thinking possible. Monday's bombing is cause for the strongest condemnation; it is also cause for thoughtful reappraisal.

In its narrowest sense, the incident raises the question of security at the embassy. It is hard to understand how a vehicle carrying explosives could have gotten into or near the embassy unless security was inadequate. Was this a breach of tight security regulations? Who let the vehicle come so close? Given the state of tension and continuing violence in Lebanon generally, one would have expected strengthened efforts to guard the American mission.

In its larger dimensions, the tragic terrorist act raises the question of stalemated Middle East diplomacy. It perhaps will take time to sort out who precisely is responsible for the bombing, though a group calling itself the Islamic Struggle Organization has claimed responsibility. But many diplomatic observers note that, in the absence of progress on an Israeli-Syrian troop pullout from Lebanon, and in the wake of King Hussein's refusal to join peace talks on West Bank autonomy (following failure of PLO endorsement), the eruption of violence is not surprising.

Needed above all in this situation is a redoubled effort - on the part of the United States and the moderate forces within the Palestine Liberation Organization - to break through the timidity and apprehension which seem to be obstructing positive moves toward peace. It should certainly not take destruction of its embassy and the loss of American lives to galvanize the United States into action. Not merely the fear of violence but first and foremost the love of peace should drive American foreign policy.

But it is self-evident that Washington has yet to prove to the Arab world that it is willing - and able - to persuade Israel to desist from actions deemed inimical to the peace process. The US has not succeeded in obtaining an agreement on an Israeli troop withdrawal from Lebanon and it has not exerted one iota of influence on the Begin government with respect to the latter's policy of absorbing the Palestinian West Bank.

The PLO leaders, in turn, instead of taking up the United States' offer to go to the negotiating table, are once again displaying self-defeating hesitancy. Their caution in agreeing to talks may be understandable in light of the lack of firm guarantees from Washington (backed up by concrete action not just words). But rather than sound and look obdurate, why not publicly agree to negotiations - providedm the US does something on Lebanon and achieves a freeze on further Jewish settlements? Then it would not appear that the Arabs are the party reluctant to negotiate, as the Begin government is pleased to have it appear.

If nothing else, the embassy incident demonstrates the fragility of the Lebanese cease-fire and the urgency of not giving up the efforts for a comprehensive peace settlement. The American people will now be acutely aware of the potential dangers which some 1,200 US Marines and other foreign peace-keeping forces face in Lebanon. They will want to add their voice to the cry of those who press America to help achieve justice in the Middle East - for all its peoples.

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